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How Ben Wheatley got his actors to take high risks

 
  Image: ANDREW MORALES/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Image: ANDREW MORALES/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

 

JENELLE RILEY – VARIETY – 29th April 2016

For a man whose films tackle the darkness of humanity, Ben Wheatley has a reputation as one of the nicest directors around. Actors constantly praise his kindness and some of the biggest names in the business are lining up to work with him. That’s a hearty endorsement, considering what he puts his cast through in “High-Rise,” his adaptation of the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel set in an apartment building that descends into chaos and anarchy.

“High-Rise” features Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons amongst its tenants, and manages to be both a brutal and beautiful work of art. Though made on a relatively modest budget of under $20 million, it’s a considerable leap in scale for Wheatley, whose previous films like “Kill List” and “Down Terrace” were made for well under $1 million. It is currently available on demand before hitting U.S. theaters on May 13.

The film opens with a pretty brutal scene involving a dog; has that earned you a lot of outrage?
Not as much as I thought I would. Even in the U.K., which is internationally famous as a place for dog lovers, there hasn’t been much. We thought it would be massively controversial. Not that we were courting it, we didn’t put it in on purpose. It was in the book.

Isn’t it strange how people are okay with violence towards humans, but not animals?
You’re used to that. if you’d never seen a film before and you saw a human die, you’d be much more empathetic. But it’s part of drama that humans get mangled in all different ways; its become abstract. It’s different with animals. I mean, I used to cry at “Lassie.”

“High Rise” is not only set in the 1970s, it looks like a film made then. Not that it’s aping a particular film, but it has the feel of a movie of that era.
Laurie Rose, the DP, and I talked a lot about the choice to shoot on film or digitally and whether to ape more ’70s styles or not. We realized in the end we didn’t want to get too far away from the filmmaking grammar we’d set in our previous films. We used mostly available light and it was lit in 360 so we could move around as much as we liked. We shot digitally because we are guys who owe our whole careers to digital filmmaking. We didn’t feel the advantages film gives you visually outweighs the advantages of being able to shoot as fast as we can think.

There’s a scene that feels like it could have come out of a Dario Argento movie, a really beautiful mirrored shot.
And that was all done practically. We built a lens that was basically a triangular mirrored thing that was in a tube that had a crank handle. And we shot it on that. Its always better if you can do it practically. I don’t know where we would have even started to make that in CG.

The film also has a very real feel to it; it has humor, but the violence isn’t cartoon or stylized.
That’s what I like about cinema is seeing those gear changes in and out of things; there are elements that are slick and then suddenly it’s raw. It comes out of liking Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg and (Martin) Scorsese movies. In “Taxi Driver,” you’re not always sure of the tone, which is like life. And you’re not told how you’re supposed to react. The way you react is how you find out things about yourself.

Do you ever worry about losing your audience?
I don’t know what losing your audience is. There’s walkouts, but what kind of an idiot walks out of a film? I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of a movie. I’ve always made the movies for me and that sounds arrogant, but I understand there’s an audience that’s like me and I play to that audience. My gamble is that it’s big enough to support the film.

I know there were walkouts at it’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Did that concern you?
It can be bruising on the day, but it’s fine. I get worried that one day you’ll make a film nobody will go and see. But at least people are passionate about it.

You have a reputation as being a really nice guy, and yet you make very dark movies that require a lot of your cast.
The actual making of a movie is complicated and stressful and part of my job is creating an atmosphere that makes them feel they want to take risks and that they can’t do anything wrong. When you get that right, you get these incredible performances out of people and you don’t have to do any work. A lot of my work is hopefully done in casting.

 
Tom Grievson